by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. Next up for our previews will be the AFC North, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

We understand the dynamics involved with downgrading the previous year’s Super Bowl champ. So we’re not too surprised that most pundits are ignoring the Baltimore Ravens (2012 SUR 14-6, PSR 10-10, O/U 11-9) and their chances to repeat. And, in fact, we don’t expect Baltimore to be playing at the Meadowlands in early February, either. But with most Las Vegas wagering outlets offering a season win price at a deeply discounted 8 ½, we suspect there is some value on a Ravens “over” recommendation.

Quite a bit, in fact. Enough for us to even pick John Harbaugh’s team atop the AFC North once again.

Sure, there are some different pieces in the Baltimore puzzle for 2013. And the injury bug had already bitten the Ravens in the summer months. But let us also not forget that Baltimore has never won fewer than nine games (and that happened only once; ten wins or more in the other four seasons) in the five seasons on Harbaugh’s watch. And upon further inspection, we are hardly convinced the Ravens are much worse-off personnel-wise than they were in the title-winning campaign a year ago.

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Of course, some dynamics have been altered. Such as those involving QB Joe Flacco, no longer playing for a new contract. But something happened to Flacco down the stretch last season when he was practically error-free once Harbaugh canned o.c. Cam Cameron, a constant irritant to Flacco, last December. While the move seemed rash at the moment, and the promotion of assistant Jim Caldwell to a play-calling role he had never held in his career looked fraught with peril, the move instead rejuvenated Flacco. Suddenly free to audible at the line of scrimmage for Caldwell, which he was not allowed to do under the baleful glare of Cameron, Flacco flourished, tossing 11 TDP and no picks in the four postseason wins, culminated by the Super Bowl thriller vs. the 49ers.

(Firing Cameron might have done more than revive Flacco, directly influencing the subsequent Super Bowl run and perhaps saving the skin of none other than Harbaugh, rumored to be in a bit of trouble at the time with what was then an increasingly-impatient owner Steve Bisciotti.)

What remains to be seen is how much Flacco might miss wideout Anquan Boldin, who departed for the Super Bowl foe 49ers in the offseason after catching a team-best 65 tosses a year ago. Not to mention key TE Dennis Pitta, sidelined in summer with a fractured and dislocated hip that will keep him out of action the entire season. By mid-August, GM Ozzie Newsome was scrambling for receiver reinforcements, adding former star Brandon Stokley, who caught a TD pass from Trent Dilfer in the Ravens’ first Super Bowl twelve years ago against the Giants and still lithe enough to nab 45 passes in Denver last fall.

The thought among most North observers is that the combination of big-play returnee WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones (he of the miracle 70-yard TD reception from Flacco in the final 30 seconds to force an OT in the pulsating division round playoff game at Denver), plus underrated TE Ed Dickson, perhaps ready to flourish in Pitta’s absence, should keep the aerial game humming. But depth is an issue, more so after Dickson missed early preseason action with his own injury (hamstring). If the Ravens’ offense should unravel this fall, it will likely be in part the doing of a depleted receiving corps, not Flacco or the solid 1-2 ground punch of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

It’s on defense, however, where most pundits might be mistakenly forecasting a dropoff after offseason departures of longtime cogs such as LB Ray Lewis (retired), LB/DE Paul Kruger (FA Cleveland), and S Ed Reed (FA Houston). While Lewis and Reed provided the emotional heart and soul for the stop unit, their contributions had diminished somewhat, the oft-injured Lewis in particular, in recent years.

Veteran d.c. Dean Pees, however, believes he still has plenty of options to deploy in his various blitz packages, which were used extensively in the playoffs and eventually thwarted a last-minute 49er drive that could have decided the Super Bowl. Baltimore was also the beneficiary of the “fax paus” in Denver regarding pass-rush demon DE Elvis Dumervil, now a Raven.

Other new faces are expected to fit seamlessly into Pees’ mix, including S Matt Elam, a first-round draft pick from Florida, and LB Arthur Brown, a big hitter from Kansas State taken in the second round. Extra additions such as free-agent signings S Michael Huff (Raiders) and DEs Chris Canty (Giants) and Marcus Spears (Cowboys) all are expected to be immediately plugged into the lineup.

As for Dumervil, along with All-Pro OLB Terrell Suggs, the Ravens should have no trouble pressuring opposing QBs.

Being so discounted by the experts could also serve as a unique rallying cry for a defending Super Bowl champ. Another Super Bowl might be a bit far-fetched, but as long as Flacco remains on the field, we doubt the Ravens drop too far from their magical perch of 2012.

Consensus opinion in the North seems to support the Cincinnati Bengals (2012 SUR 10-7, PSR 9-7-1, O/U 6-11) supplanting the Ravens as the division winner. Not a far-fetched conclusion, considering the back-to-back playoff appearances the past two seasons from the guys with the tiger-striped helmets. Which, if reports from the region are to be believed, has interestingly put a bit more pressure on HC Marvin Lewis, entering his 11th season in charge this fall.

Lewis would seem an odd choice to be under any sort of a gun after surviving several wretched past campaigns with the full support of team president Mike Brown, who has always appreciated the fact that Lewis was willing to work a bit cheaper than most other head coaching alternatives. But now that expectations have risen in the Queen City, some are wondering if Lewis is capable of taking the Bengals beyond the wild card round, where Cincy has fallen in each of its four previous postseason appearances for Lewis, including the last two years with losses at Houston. In fact, the franchise’s postseason win drought now extends to 22 years.

It is fair, however, to wonder how far the Bengals might be able to progress under 3rd-year QB Andy Dalton, who has steered Cincy to the playoffs in his first two years in the league, although offensive shortcomings have made the Bengals a very unlikely candidate to advance far in the postseason. We’re not sure that dynamic has altered much this season, especially with the same lingering questions in the WR corps beyond the explosive A.J. Green (97 catches for 1350 yards a year ago). It is hoped that second-year ex-Rutgers charge Mohamed Sanu, slowed by a foot injury last fall, or former Cal wideout Marvin Jones, who came on late last season, might be the guys to take some off the double-coverage pressure off of Green.

On the plus side, Lewis was able to retain o.c. Jay Gruden, who interviewed for HC openings around the league last January but remains in Cincy after inking a contract extension thru 2015. Gruden prefers a hybrid West Coast scheme that mostly features RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis (career-high 1094 YR in 2012) to set up the passing lanes. The strike force’s addition of a couple of highly-touted rookies, Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert (1st-round pick) and North Carolina RB Gio Bernard, potentially adds a few more dimensions to the attack; the combo of Eifert and holdover TE Jermaine Gresham will, if nothing else, provide Dalton with an extra big target in the red zone. The OL returns intact.

The key, however, will be the progress of QB Dalton, challenged in the offseason and training camp by Gruden to be more productive on his downfield throws. It is not lost on most observers how Dalton has often looked out of his depth vs. top-notch defenses, too.

But the Bengals weren’t winning many games with their strike force a year ago. Rather, it was the defense, coordinated by the respected Mike Zimmer (like Gruden also rumored in the queue for some HC openings after last season but similarly remaining at Paul Brown Stadium for at least another year), that paced seven wins over the last eight weeks of the regular season. During that late-season run, the Bengals allowed only 12.8 ppg in the process, and along the way set a franchise record for sacks with 51 (with 31 of those in the final eight games).

The defensive front remains robust, with DT Geno Adkins and DE Michael Johnson anchoring the line, and FA OLB James Harrison switches sides in the Steelers-Bengals rivalry. A key in the front seven however, remains MLB Rey Malauga, considered by some to be a liability; don’t be surprised if 2nd-year Vontaze Burfict, formerly of Arizona State, moves into the lineup at some point.

Another situation to watch will be in the secondary, where ex-Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick’s rookie campaign was mostly a wasted one a year ago due to knee problems. Drafted in the first round in 2012 to play opposite Leon Hall in the starting lineup, Kirkpatrick (if back at 100%) could prove an upgrade to Terence Newman and give the Bengals a true potential pair of shutdown corners to go along with the strong defensive front.

With that defense, we expect Cincy to compete for another playoff berth, but we wonder if Dalton has enough dimensions to lead the Bengals deep into the postseason. Meanwhile, main offseason addition Harrison, now 35, also represents a calculated gamble at this stage of his career. Like a year ago, we suspect the Bengals go as far as their defense takes them...probably again no further than the first playoff round.

The reincarnation of the Cleveland Browns (2012 SUR 5-11, PSR 8-7-1, O/U 5-10-1) has gone like most other sports ventures in the city since the “old” Browns won the NFL title in 1964. Cleveland hasn’t won a pro sports title in any year since, and as we approach a half-century since that slushy late December afternoon in ‘64 which etched WR Gary Collins’ name into Browns lore with 3 TD catches from QB Frank Ryan, there are fewer and fewer people around who actually remember the last time a city team won a championship. (Let’s not even get into the local angst surrounding LeBron and the Cavs.)

We’re not thinking the current Browns are going to change that dynamic in 2013, especially after deciding to pull the plug rather early on the two-year Pat Shurmur experiment as head coach. Moreover, owner Jimmy Haslam has had some of his own problems to worry about in his other job as CEO of the Pilot truck stop chain. Although now that Haslam is tied up with other issues, perhaps he will be less likely to stick his nose into the football operation...which could be a silver lining in the many clouds over Cuyahoga county.

In fact, we see a few more rays of sunshine poking through the horizon in Cleveland, specifically to do with an offense that has consistently been one of the NFL’s worst over the past several years, and as it was again last season. The optimism is fueled by a new brain trust on the shores of Lake Erie featuring first-year HC Rob Chudzinski, most recently Cam Newton’s o.c. in Carolina and now the 7th different head coach since the Browns’ rebirth in 1999, and Norv Turner, who employed Chudzinski while head coach in San Diego during the 2009-10 seasons but now serving in his old o.c. role.

Indeed, Norv seems back in his wheelhouse as a coordinator, where his reputation was first forged. It was also a role in which he established himself as one of the game’s best play-callers and QB tutors during Troy Aikman’s formative and early Super Bowl years in Dallas, and also while temporarily reviving Alex Smith’s career during Norv's one season in San Francisco (2006). Of course, Philip Rivers also posted mostly big numbers during Norv’s tenure as HC in San Diego, although all observers of the NFL scene note how Norv seems so much better-suited to his preferred role of a coordinator.

Early indicators from preseason action suggest the Norv effect is kicking in once more, as second-year QB Brandon Weeden has appeared a changed man at the helm of the Browns offense. While the commitment to Weeden, a prize of the preceding Shurmur regime, was speculated upon in the offseason and further fueled by the FA addition of the established Jason Campbell, Weeden has looked extremely comfy at the helm of a more progressive scheme in early exhibition work, completing 18 of 25 passes with 3 TDs and no picks in the first two preseason tilts.

While Chudzinski had yet to name Weeden as the official starter in the run-up to the Detroit game on August 15, most North observers consider that designation to be a fait accompli, as Weeden has taken every first-team snap in training camp and practice.

Indeed, Weeden has looked at home in Norv’s uptempo attack that plays to Weeden’s strength as the strong-armed, shotgun passer we saw at Oklahoma State. Barring injury in the final two preseason games, expect Weeden to start in the opener vs. Miami on September 8.

Speaking of injury, last year’s top draft pick RB Trent Richardson was slowed by those (rib woes) a year ago but still managed 960 YR and could be poised for a breakout campaign; a healthy Richardson adds another intriguing toy to Norv’s treasure chest. We can’t yet say the same about the Browns’ receiving corps, although it is hoped that FA addition Davone Bess (Miami) gives Weeden another reliable target from the slot, and wideouts Josh Gordon and Greg Little (combined 103 catches in 2012) still hint at plenty of upside. (Note that Gordon will miss the first two games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance policy.)

The Browns’ defense will also have a different look with new d.c. Ray Horton, most recently the Cardinals’ coordinator but familiar with AFC North wars from his days on the Steelers’ staff between 2004-10. The fiery Horton, a finalist for the Big Red’s HC position that would eventually go to Bruce Arians instead, will transition the Cleveland “D” into his preferred 3-4 scheme, where the addition of impactful ex-Ravens OLB and featured FA addition Paul Kruger should fit in just fine with the new, attack-minded philosophy. First-round LSU draftee Barkevious Mingo, a potential hybrid DE/LB, also appears just the sort of force who can make a splash in the aggressive Horton defense (though keep tabs on Mingo and the bruised lung he suffered in the August 15 game vs. the Lions).

It is expected that Kruger (and perhaps rookie Mingo, if the preseason injury doesn't linger) will help upgrade a pass rush that is a cornerstone to the Horton plan while hopefully providing a bit of relief to a beleaguered secondary that allowed a whopping 27 TD passes a year ago. Opposing teams relentlessly picked upon the corner opposite Joe Haden last season; the Browns have high hopes for 3rd-round pick Leon McFadden from San Diego State, who has been penciled in as a starter, though at an undersized 5’l0 (and that’s being generous), he’ll be tested early and often.

Flying under the radar, however, we expect Cleveland to provide some decent spread value this fall, especially if the early preseason work of Weeden is no mirage. And we suspect it isn’t, given Norv Turner’s sterling history as an offensive coordinator. We even think the Browns could improve enough to move out of the North cellar.

Does that mean we are picking the Pittsburgh Steelers (2012 SUR 8-8, PSR 7-9, O/U 6-9-1) at the bottom of the division? We at TGS remember the days when we used to do this automatically in the ‘60s, a wretched decade for the franchise that would call old Forbes Field, and then Pitt Stadium, as its home before moving to Three Rivers Stadium at the confluence, shepherding an unforgettable decade of success in the ‘70s.

But this is 2013. And whereas prospects are definitely looking up in Cincinnati and Cleveland, and Baltimore is merely the defending Super Bowl champion, the Steelers seem to be heading in the wrong direction, as last year’s slip to 8-8 and a playoff miss for only the second time in the Mike Tomlin regime would suggest.

By this stage, we are no longer counting upon a full season of production from QB Ben Roethlisberger, who might be the “oldest” 10-year veteran we can recall. Big Ben has endured myriad injury woes over the past couple of years, and while he can still slide from side-to-side in the pocket and give himself an extra tick or two to look downfield, he doesn’t move quite as well as a few years ago, and he remains a big target for defenders. Having taken innumerable hard shots in his career, we’re not the only ones wondering how much tread is left on the tires of Big Ben, even though he’s only 31.

Moreover, we have other doubts about the Steeler offense. Sources say Big Ben and prickly o.c. Todd Haley have something of a love/hate relationship, minus the love; communications are said to be very strained between these strong-willed sorts. Insiders report Big Ben has found Haley’s abrasive style not to his liking, certainly not as much as predecessor Bruce Arians’ more-upbeat approach. Some trusted observers were even a bit surprised that Tomlin retained Haley after a rather bumpy ride in his Heinz Field debut a year ago.

Still, let's remember that for a while last fall, Big Ben did appear on his way to a career year before injuring his shoulder and ribs in early November, then hardly looking like the same QB down the stretch. This on the heels of ankle woes in 2011 that made Roethlisberger look a shell of his former self in the previous year, too. The offensive line has also undergone something of a transition, and the old rock ‘em sock ‘em Steelers ground game was mostly a memory a year ago when the team slumped to 26th (only 96.1 ypg) in NFL rush stats. Where the sluggish ground game goes this season after Rashard Mendenhall’s stay in the Steel City ended on a downer (and his departure to Arizona in free agency) is anyone’s guess, especially with the expected successor to the feature-back role, punishing Michigan State rookie Le’Veon Bell, aggravating a knee injury prior to the second preseason game vs. Washington. Bell, a workhorse in college, had already missed the exhibition opener vs. the Giants due to problems with the same knee.

Looking to re-establish a physical dimension to the offense, Tomlin has run a much more-intense training camp, featuring plenty of live hitting. The wisdom of such is open to speculation, however, if it costs the Steelers their projected top RB, especially as none of the holdover RBs (Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Baron Batch) inspire much confidence.

That’s not all of the concerns for the offense, which also lost top deep threat wideout Mike Wallace to the Dolphins in free agency. Pittsburgh sorely needs more options on the attack end to take pressure off of Big Ben, who even struggled to get the ball downfield to the dangerous Wallace last season. Plaxico Burress’ return to Heinz Field has also been truncated by a torn rotator cuff suffered in training camp, landing him on IR. Pressure thus mounts on holdover wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, while Oregon State rookie Markus Wheaton is going to be expected to produce immediately from the slot.

Meanwhile, perhaps Big Ben’s favorite returning target, TE Heath Miller (71 catches LY), is also recovering from a brutal knee injury and remains on PUP in preseason, as is another TE option, David Johnson. Yet another TE, Matt Spaeth, is also out indefinitely with a foot injury, for the moment leaving 2nd-year David Paulson the only healthy performer at the position on the roster.

We also have to wonder how much sage d.c. Dick LeBeau, the master of the zone blitz, can coax out of a stop unit that again managed to lead the NFL in total defense a year ago (allowing a mere 276 ypg). But LeBeau might have been doing all of that with mirrors, and there are several questions within the stop unit, beginning up front where the Men of Steel did not generate a consistent pass rush last season.

Moreover, what will LeBeau’s platoon look like minus longtime stalwarts such as OLB James Harrison (FA Bengals) and DT Casey Hampton (released), and with former impact performers such as S Troy Polamalu and DE Brett Keisel now into their 30s?

Polamalu’s immense contributions have always been incalculable, but durability is now a major issue after he missed 20 games over the past two seasons due to a variety of hurts. The big defensive plays, so identified with Polamalu earlier in his career, have mostly disappeared.

Some new blood in the mix will likely be provided by first-round draft pick OLB Jarvis Jones (Georgia), who could be the first rookie to start for a LeBeau defense since 2010 if he assumes Harrison’s spot, as expected. Ex-Lions CB William Gay was also added in free agency to a secondary that might be getting a bit long in the tooth, even beyond Polamalu.

The bottom line is that the Steelers look to be in transition, and we shudder to think what might happen if Big Ben goes down again, with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski now Plan B after Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch are no longer part of the equation. But rather than say “if” Big Ben goes down, we should say “when” he goes down, as more than ever he figures to be a target of enemy defenses that don’t seem to have as much to worry about as they once did with the Steeler offense.

And, to paraphrase the old Timex commericals, if Big Ben stops ticking, the Steelers will stop clicking.


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